Cold Email: Free Advertising With a Caveat
by Taylor Slattery | September 15, 2022
When you’re first starting out on your own as either a freelancer or small business owner, one of the hardest things to figure out is how to generate leads. If you just left a role in the same line of work or have other previous related work experience, you may have made some contacts you can use to help you get the ball rolling or at least give you a better idea of where to start. However, for those starting out from scratch, finding a means of reliably generating business is one of the most challenging and important hurdles to overcome.
Before you embark down the long road of learning advertising and sales, it’s best to make sure you have your ducks in a row so when you do start attracting some eyeballs, you’ll be able to smoothly transition to landing contracts. First and foremost, you need to look the part. Your site should contain examples of your best work, be easy to navigate, and answer any questions potential clients might have before reaching out to you regarding project proposals or specifics.
Next, you need to be easy to find. It’s important to make sure that your site is optimized to appear in search engine results for your area and expertise. A high ranking here is your best chance at passively landing new clients, so SEO optimization and making sure your site is easy to find should be your focus early on as these can take some time to refine.
Lastly, do good work. Always. That old adage about word of mouth being the best form of advertising is true, so it’s also important to take care of every client and reliably deliver quality work. When you’re just starting out you’ve got the opportunity to craft your reputation from scratch. If you can knock it out of the park for your first few clients, their enthusiasm for what you’ve created will be more valuable than any amount you could spend on ads. If they’re excited about your work, they’ll tell their friends, who will tell their friends, and so on. Building rapport online is difficult, and it’s much easier for people to trust you on the word of someone they know and themselves trust. This is how you go about building a network and it all starts with doing good work.
Of course, despite being one of the best forms of advertising, word of mouth can only take you so far, after which you can always experiment with more traditional forms of advertising. You too could be one of those intrusive sidebar or inline ads that people scroll right past in search of the content they’re really looking for. Sounds enticing, right? To be fair, these sorts of ads can be effective. After all, if they weren’t, we wouldn’t see so many of them. Success with these sorts of ads depends on how well you know your customer, and figuring this part out can take time.
Once you’ve more or less pinpointed your demographic, it will take some additional trial and error to find the winning combination of imagery and copy—every time you create a new ad campaign. Naturally, to do this in any sort of meaningful way that will yield results for your business, it’s going to cost you. If this is starting to sound expensive, don’t worry, there’s one more option.
If you’re at the point in your career where you’ve got more time than money, there’s another option for generating leads that won’t cost you a cent (assuming you’ve already got internet access, but you’re reading this, so, hey). Cold emails. It almost sounds like an oxymoron. What could be more cold or impersonal than some words on a screen sent by a faceless stranger? It’s exactly this sentiment that makes cold emails so difficult to find success with. But hey, they’re free, so all you’ve got to lose is time.
Right off the bat, it’s important that you set your expectations low, and I mean very low. Your hit rate, especially starting out, will likely be abysmally low. We’re talking one response for every 100 emails you send. If that sounds hopeless to you, then maybe you’re better off just paying for advertising, but if you’re willing to give it a shot there are a few things you should keep in mind to help improve your odds.
First off, think about the types of subject lines you occasionally see in your inbox that cause you to immediately flag them as spam. Avoid these. Unless you can make it clear that you are actually familiar with this person and their business, your message will likely never be opened. This is why it’s important to do your research and while your cold emails may follow a similar format, avoid using a template.
You want to be respectful of people’s time, and nothing is less respectful than letting them know you couldn’t even be bothered to craft a personalized message for the email you’re using to ask them for business. Write a brief message explaining who you are, how you found them, and how you think you might be of service in helping them to reach their goals.
Remember, you are a stranger, so letting them know you’re from the same city, attended the same school, or even have a common interest is a great way of making a connection and starting to build rapport. This will only be possible if you do your research though, so don’t skimp on the leg work, even if that means sending fewer emails. If you’re just going to phone it in by using a template and sending generic emails, you might as well not even bother. It’s difficult enough to establish trust without face-to-face contact and next to impossible if you prioritize quantity over quality.
Lastly, keep your message short. You don’t want to take up too much of their time, nor spend too much of your own, because in all likelihood this email will not be met with a response. If the stars align, and your email manages to find its way into the inbox of someone receptive to your offer, you want to ensure there is as little friction as possible in moving forward. They’ve taken the bait but you haven’t reeled them in yet. Make it clear what the next steps should be if they are interested and make sure you are easy to reach.
If you’ve made it this far, it’s safe to assume you are serious about achieving success through your small business or as a freelancer and are willing to do what it takes to see that happen. The best advice I can give you is to be persistent. Even if at times it feels hopeless, hang in there. There are countless stories of people finally landing their lucky break with a leading role in a Hollywood production, getting their dream job at Google, or getting in touch with someone they admire only for that person to become their mentor and forever change the direction of their life. The thing that all of those stories have in common is failure. It was only after repeated failures that their persistence was finally rewarded. You never know how close you are to landing your big break, and if you quit too early, you’ll never find out. So hang in there—it will be worth it.
Taylor is the Managing Editor of Notes on Design. Taylor is a graphic designer, illustrator, and Design Lead at Weirdsleep.